D continues to adjust to new players, coaches
Maybe South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier hired Lorenzo Ward as a new defensive coach because of his previous experience at Arkansas or his overall body of work. Either way, it seems to be working out quite well.
Along with assistant head coach Ellis Johnson, Ward is beginning to put the pieces together with a defense that features a mix of All-SEC talent and true freshmen. It's an all too familiar situation for Ward.
"We were that way last year at Arkansas. We had about 23 true freshmen that we had to play," Ward said. "So the thing about it here is, the good thing is, the six young men we've got in school right now were in high school or junior college a year ago, actually a semester ago so having them here and going through spring practice can be a bonus for us."
What Ward has come into is nothing short of a mixed bag. Though five starters and 12 lettermen from last year's squad either graduated or left early, he does inherit one of the most feared pass rushers in the conference in Eric Norwood. Rising junior linemen like Clifton Geathers and Cliff Matthews have an abundance of potential, but Norwood is still the best of all the players in the front seven as demonstrated by Thursday's practice.
"It seems like our offensive linemen are afraid to block him I guess, I don't know. We just never block him. He just always runs right on in there and messes up the drill. Hopefully the other team will be afraid to block him," Spurrier said. "Norwood's flying around, he's quick, he's faster than he used to be."
The shortage of defensive depth comes in the secondary where three starters from last year have vacated their spots, leaving Darian Stewart as the only player with starting experience left on the depth chart. Stewart says both Ward and Johnson have called on him to be a leader and help guide freshman players like Stephon Gilmore and DeVonte Holloman who are battling for possible starting roles. Adding to that depth loss is the suspension of C.C. Whitlock, who did not meet team standards and has spent much of the spring away from the team.
Stewart says having both coaches pushing the players has been a pleasant change for everyone on the defense.
"There's not really a difference. They're both hard nosed. There's not really too much of a difference between them," Stewart said. "I feel like the only thing that changed was, I don't know, it's just more fun out there. We have fun with the coaches and stuff."
With a combination of youth and experience, Ward has used the spring practice sessions as a chance to find out what his team is good at. Numerous different coverages and schemes have been employed with mixed results.
In the Gamecocks' first scrimmage of the spring, the offense ran up and down the field for five touchdowns. A week later, the defense shut down the offense for the majority of the second scrimmage which included six sacks and two interceptions.
"Right now we're still searching for our identity. We're throwing a lot of things at them," Ward said. "We've already told them though all of the things we've put in now we won't use next season, but we just want see what we can get good at. And the thing about this defense is we do have speed so we've got to use that to our advantage."
With all those new pressures being put on the team, Ward is aware that mistakes are going to be made in the spring, but the learning process is the most important part especially with young players.
"We're making some mental assignment misses, but for the most part we're doing pretty good," Ward said. "We've still got a lot of fundamental technique work to do, but they're starting to understand what we're asking for in each coverage."
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